by Mark Sinker
From Film Quarterly Winter 2009-10, Vol. 63, No. 2
It’s four decades now since those pretzel-logic days of possibility, transformation, rage, confusion, and defeat—and increasingly as they’re returned to us, it’s in the form that documentary currently prefers to dab at history: the immense flow of available news footage intercut with middle-aged talking heads placing themselves in careful safe accord with what all speaking take to be the story. Even The Weather Underground, with its participants at such unresolved extremes, its bombs and inner flight—angry American youth bringing the Vietnam War home—fashions a stolid, meager consensus from its elements. It’s not the only way. Chris Marker’s Le Fond de l’air est rouge—in English A Grin Without a Cat—is a vast study of the emergence and failure of the 1960s Left, woven out of his own and other footage, and woven into a meditation on a longer tale of the radical Left everywhere. A three-hour film covering ten years of world history, 1967–77, it evokes some seventy-five years, from The Battleship Potemkin to the coda Marker added in the early 1990s.
A quarter of the way into A Grin Without a Cat comes an extended, seemingly blunt announcement of something new under the sun: “1967 saw the arrival of a peculiar breed of adolescents. They all looked alike. They would immediately recognize each other. They seemed to possess a silent and absolute knowledge of certain issues, but to be totally ignorant about others. Their hands were unbelievably skillful at pasting up posters, handling paving stones, spraying short and cryptic messages which stuck in the memory. All the while calling for more hands to pass on the message they’d received but not completely deciphered. Those fragile hands have left us the mark of their fragility. Once they even wrote it on a banner: workers will take the flag of struggle from the fragile hands of the students. But that was the following year.”
A space, the film has been saying, had opened, between old and new Left; as the red Elvis of the Third World, Che Guevara was its face. With the anticlimactic Bolivian debacle of Che’s guerrilla Marxism, the non-delivery of its threatened “two, three, many Vietnams,” was it really, we’re asked, just western imperialism that was relieved at his squalid death? Marker shows a distraught Castro, for once (nearly) speechless, as well as lesser communist commentators, aghast at Che’s adventurism. All tiptoe opportunistically round his barechested mass appeal. And then, at some rock festival, the “peculiar adolescents,” blithely wrapped in the image of their martyred knight—this paradoxical icon of a liberation from the unfreedoms of their own lives, to be sure, but also from the grim puritan bureaucracies and brutal dreary prison realms of the actually existing socialism they blankly decline to serve: at once a warrior for and against the failed left-wing gerontocracies. But the camera doesn’t dwell on them. The announcement occurs across a montage of innumerable hands, feeding or writing or warring, as if to say: when watching for the future, you may not yet be seeing what you should be looking at. If the narration give us Marker’s thoughts, they always emerge in the voices of others: as we gaze and listen, the words and images seem to stand away from one another a little. And this youthful space—the word adolescents far more the point than students—between unbridgeably confronting orders is perhaps an illusion, perhaps even a sly police provocation, but it opens onto another that’s neither, the space between crowds and power.
In 1969, the U.S. New Left—known to itself as just “the Movement”—shattered. The radical journalist Andrew Kop-kind was at the Chicago convention of its key mass organization, Students for a Democratic Society, and recorded the speech made by movement leader Bernadine Dohrn, soon to be the pop-star face on the FBI’s most-wanted posters: “‘We are not a caucus,’ she said at the end. ‘We are SDS.’ And suddenly it became true to the crowds in the bleachers, and they knew that there was no turning back.” Captivated by her eloquence, Kopkind heard a clarion call here, where we, today, may only hear the dreary sectarian routine of far-left politics: after a staged walkout, the Progressive Labor faction was expelled from SDS. Dohrn, for the hostile majority, was denouncing the self-trapped dogma of the old-school revolutionary Left as much as the compromised pragmatism of the center. Kopkind also—almost inadvertently—captured something else, the sheer absoluteness of identification and purpose: “We are SDS.” Forty years ago, those three letters meant so much: today, to anyone under forty, they mean nothing at all. No turning back: the speed of the change, everything to nothing in a matter of months, as if her words were the wrong kind of spell. Alice, Dohrn herself, vanishes underground; the insurrection of a million minds—the student Left—begins its long fade back to invisibility.
It’s because Marker’s films are uncluttered with all the hurriedly enforcing signals others reach for—too-tight unities of sight and sound as anxious confirmations how to see, how to read, how to hear—that they, too, can show such easy-to-miss moments, in such profusion: as one of his actors voices Marker’s ethic somewhere, “You can never know what you’re filming.” Moments such as Tati Allende, Salvador’s daughter, standing up in his revolutionary honor before a vast Havana gathering, in the wake of Chile’s and democracy’s lethal fall to Pinochet. She steps aside as Castro begins to speak; the camera stays on her expressionless, exhausted face. As a barely discernible tear tracks her cheek, the narrator tells us that she, like her father before her, will commit suicide; and the detail expands into the gulf between her hopes and her dread.
Che is everywhere in “Fragile Hands,” the first half of A Grin Without a Cat (and everywhere agonizingly absent from the second). Two other cats, twinned antipodes to this topsy-turvy decade, are never quite visible, except perhaps as a trace in the moves or acts of those on-screen.
Writing in the late 1960s—about Janis Joplin, Easy Rider, Woodstock, the Who, the Movement—the great early rock critic and radical feminist Ellen Willis noted, again and again, the entangled contradictory forces at work, of self-rescue through stardom, of the establishment of a mass youth manifestation of a bohemian cultural rebellion: “Dylan’s appreciation of surface detail represents Guthrie-esque common sense—to Dylan, a television commercial was always a television commercial as well as a symbol of alienation.” As a careful far-leftie, Willis every time insists that a cultural revolution (a true change in the role of art) can only follow a social revolution, an actual upheaval in the social order; yet as a fan, she’s caught, fascinated, in these swift glimpses of something else maybe there, gliding away around a corner. Dylan is her touchstone, his beatnik self-absorption and slippery sexy arrogance exactly the “alike” that Marker’s adolescents looked; watch Régis Debray or Daniel Cohn-Bendit lounge and swagger in A Grin Without a Cat, or Dohrn’s partner Bill Ayers, a self-loving young stud, in The Weather Underground. The on-camera pose is the maddening core of the “absolute knowledge” they may seem to have. (Hard perhaps now to recall how potent was the superbly insouciant way the Beatles and Dylan had with television’s self-serious absurdity.)
Dylan’s twin, of course—secret adept of banners, spray-paint, the paving stones of Paris, legislator of the May ‘68 revolt, tellingly unacknowledged by Marker—is Guy Debord, as resolutely clandestine as his other half was everywhere. No doubt it’s daft today to insist that you’ll best understand Guy if only you study Bob, with both so hopelessly buried in the rubble pile of the misconceptions of their hagiographers. Self-fashioned bohemians both, hypnotized yet disgusted by modern media, both—for a short dizzying while—were its wilful masters: it’s no accident that “Weatherman,” as the group first termed itself, fannishly swiped a memorable, cryptic Dylan phrase for its manifesto. Both endlessly dodge through ways to trick or dare you into re-seeing your own lives, your own agency, before pop or vanguard art or spectacular politics infected either. Debord’s abdication from and dissolution of the Situationist International in the early 1970s can be read through the scrim of his own riddling quasi-Marxist explanations, wrong-footing the reserve army of self-appointed successors to his own unwanted celebrity: his 1989 memoir Panegryic gnomically recasts two decades of engaged avant-gardism as a tale of beer, pretty girls, and war-nerd reading matter. A whole chapter is given over to showing—though never directly saying—that the Situationist term of art, dérive, translates most accurately, if unglamorously, as “pub crawl”: one last turn of self-revelation as, yes, Dylanesque mystification.
There’s a startling edit late in Woodstock, another 1969 vanishing that cuts against the self-celebratory timbre of both festival and documentation. The romance of American pop was always the dance between the lonely spotlit face and the watching thousands; the movie’s true subject is the gathered skinny-dipping mass, watching themselves as they take history’s stage, and throughout the camera has switched from audience POV to star’s-eye-view back into the crowd. Now, during Hendrix’s set, we gaze at an empty hillside, a suddenly desolate aftermath. Contrast a scene near the beginning of Marker’s film: an unpeopled flight of steps suddenly filled with a crowd, fading in from who knows where. Of course this is an image from Battleship Potemkin, which the narrator—Marker’s memory, actor’s voice—tells us, in the film’s very first words, “I did not see …”
This perhaps is what sets Marker apart from Dylan and Debord; from the no-turning-back surge of the social moment he’s remembering; perhaps from all the extant Marxist tradition he’s too easily tidied into. At once daunting and transparent, his ellipsis is never riddling; his montage never has the hipster’s impatience with its own dullard followers; this is not the romance of the beleaguered “higher man” against all the straight world, but rather a romance with the crowd itself, a romance with its endless mass of detail and possibility; its flow, its stance, its likeness to you … Dylan and Debord both use confident vanity as a put-on, playing hard and fast with the wily teacherly possibilities of boho stardom, but they hardly overthrew it, or we wouldn’t be stuck with all the hagiography. Trapped in their own mirror stage, narcissistically saint-struck, the faces of the New Left plunged into incomprehensible internecine squabble about which among them was emerging the most perfectly formed exemplar of how to be after the revolution. And—this is where Marker’s part two, titled “Severed Hands,” glumly takes us—above all this, the grown-ups stepped back onto the catafalque with soon-to-be-dead Warhol pin-up Mao to once more take charge. The Cultural Revolution was anyway already here, insisted one clever little gang of French power-toadies, as they brandished the works of the Great (blood-drenched) Helmsman: though on-screen, this perhaps sneaks past us almost unnoticed, in a broader stream of reversals. Only in his 2008 DVD notes will Marker lets us glimpse his full anger at such idiocy: “French Maoism would remain a landmark in the history of teratology.” Former gadfly Castro took his place up there with the Moscow bureaucrats. Forget Jan Palach, ignore Prague. “Can the socialist camp allow …?”
In 1971 in Persepolis, at an arts pageant in which the Shah celebrated 2500 years of tyranny, all the wizened stars of higher state purpose gathered to gladhand and congratulate: capitalist, communist, nonaligned. Nixon could be toppled; no need even for the Movement; single-issue stage invasions—like the Japanese consumer revolt at the Minimata pollution scandal—would still erupt. But it’s certain now that the Cheshire Cat had once more slipped away.
So what is the cat and where—strangest question—shall we find its grin? In Alice in Wonderland, of course, the two mock royalty and teach a child to topple the court. Unbiddable in their arrivals and leave-taking, they are uncanny in their partial lingerings, their different and distinct hard-to-grasp not-yet-there-nesses. At odds with one another, they sit somehow outside official time: and time—and memory—bring us back to the heart of Marker’s life’s work, and how deeply it matters to him that we know—see, read, hear, feel—the space between how it was, how he wishes it had been been, how it could be. Tempting simply to say that the cat is revolution and the grin the generational dialectic, this turn of human time which presages change but also mocks it. Faced with the unanswerable indictment the young always bring—simply by arriving in the world their elders failed to redeem—the old guard’s distrust of and resistance to it will be fashioned from the forms, habits, and institutions it surrounded itself with in the days after its own rebellious adventures long ago, when change arrived or seemed to, or failed to.
But of course the grin is everything we see and don’t see, everything we don’t take in but should. Not just voices but faces; not just faces, but hands. Students grow up to be teachers themselves, participants in May ‘68, yes, or onlookers, and in time, in weariness or in anguish glossing the turmoil—its voluble energy, its guilelessness, its openness—as its opposite; the urgent triage of the moment denounced as a hindsight-obvious trap. To protect their children from heartbreak or worse; to protect their careers, their own compensation for their own despair. Won’t get fooled again: Debord’s theory of the spectacle recast, by ten thousand tenured pseudo-radicals, as a blindness—no cat here—and no grin either. Everything tricks of the mind and the media.
No wonder Marker uses voice as he does: as far as possible from the skeins of bad authority and justificatory citation which infest our age. As The Weather Underground re-shows and re-tells it, the vanguard fellowship appeared merely to have stepped through the glass at some point, into a parallel, wholly unpeopled America. But student stars-to-be aren’t all we see on Marker’s cameras; and nor is Castro, nor even Che. There, in the center of all those crowds: all those other faces; all those deft, unnamed hands. Workers, peasants, the people beyond the imperial metropole. There for a moment, then gone: the momentary detail—and not always grinning—all of it, this flow, this mighty flood. Stars are made of the crowds that surge through them. What if every last rescued detail stepped up to speak, from the center of the screen, and from its margins too: every single unglamorous cat? Millions and millions and millions of cats. You can never know what you’re filming.
MARK SINKER is a Sight and Sound contributing editor.